TALLAHASSEE — A Black farmer who has grown soybeans, corn, peanuts, watermelon and peas on his 1,137-acre McAlpin farm for more than four decades can add a new crop to the mix – marijuana.
Terry Donnell Gwinn, who operates Gwinn Brothers Farm with his brother Clifford, is in line to be the state’s newest medical-marijuana operator. The Suwannee County farmer beat out 11 other applicants who were vying for a license earmarked for a Black farmer with ties to Florida.
The state Department of Health on Tuesday announced it had issued a “written notice of intent” to approve a medical-marijuana license for Gwinn, setting the stage for what could be drawn-out litigation over the coveted opportunity to join the medical-pot industry.
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Florida voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. The resulting 2017 law included a provision requiring health officials to issue a license to a Black farmer because none of the African-American farmers in Florida could meet eligibility requirements for an earlier round of state licenses.
In addition to awarding a license to a Black farmer, this week’s decision could help pave the way for health officials to double the number of medical-marijuana operators in the state – currently at 22, not including Gwinn – as also required by the 2017 law that set guidelines for the industry.
The health department’s decision to award the license to Gwinn is almost certain to spur litigation from medical-marijuana hopefuls who lost out. All but five of the medical-marijuana businesses currently operating in the state were issued licenses after drawn-out legal and administrative challenges.
“Everybody who lost is going to challenge,” Daniel Russell, a Tallahassee lawyer with the Dean Mead firm who represents one of the applicants, told The News Service of Florida. “We all saw how this went last time. There were supposed to be five licensees and now there’s more than 20, and it happened via litigation strategies and lobbying strategies. So that’s what we’re going to do again.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial decision to send about 50 asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard drew a pair of lawsuits this week, as well as national attention.
The Sept. 14 flights started in San Antonio, Texas, and stopped at an airport in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview before heading north to the Massachusetts island enclave.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a North Miami Beach Democrat, filed a legal challenge in Leon County circuit court Thursday alleging that the governor’s move violates the state Constitution and a separate Florida law.
To pay for the charter flights, DeSantis’ administration tapped into a $12 million fund lawmakers this year steered to the Florida Department of Transportation “for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.” State records show that the state agency paid Vertol Systems Company, Inc. nearly $1.6 million this month for “relocation of unauthorized aliens.”
Pizzo’s lawsuit cited part of the Constitution and said “substantive” policies are required to be approved in separate laws, rather than through the budget.
DeSantis, the Department of Transportation, Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The 13-page complaint emphasizes that the asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela, had been in Texas, not Florida, after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pizzo’s legal challenge also accused the DeSantis administration of violating a state law that bars government agencies from entering contracts with transportation companies if those companies are “willfully providing any service in furtherance of transporting a person into the state of Florida knowing that the person is an unauthorized alien, except to facilitate the detention, removal or departure of the person from this state or the United States.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske issued a statement criticizing Pizzo – a former prosecutor – and noting that he voted for the budget in March. Lawmakers vote on the overall budget and not individual sections, though they can propose amendments addressing sections.
“Senator Pizzo never misses an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame and is challenging an action on an appropriation he voted for,” Fenske said.
On Tuesday, lawyers representing some of the asylum seekers who were allegedly “tricked” into boarding the flights filed a potential class-action lawsuit seeking to stop the governor from luring immigrants to travel across state lines.
The legal challenge, filed by attorneys with the Massachusetts-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, seeks unspecified monetary damages and asks a federal judge to block the DeSantis administration from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”
In Texas, the immigrants were given items such as $10 McDonald’s gift cards and promised “free shoes” if they would agree to take the flights, with many of the people not understanding where they were going, according to the allegations. The immigrants were placed in a hotel for several days before boarding two charter planes on Sept. 14.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, told reporters Wednesday that his organization also requested anonymity for the plaintiffs because they have received “a barrage of hate messages and death threats” as they try to recover from daunting journeys to the U.S. and subsequent trauma from their relocation to the Northeast. The request was granted by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.
Espinoza-Madrigal, a lawyer, called the lawsuit “the first of its kind” in the nation.
“We are dealing with an unprecedented situation. Never before have immigrants been endangered in this way,” he said.
Rattlers strike at state
Arguing that the state has failed to meet funding obligations and other commitments to Florida A&M University, six students on Thursday filed a potential class-action lawsuit accusing state officials of “intentional discrimination” against the historically Black school.
The federal lawsuit alleged that the state has maintained “a segregated system of higher education” and that Florida’s disparate funding and support for FAMU violated constitutional equal-protection rights.
“Throughout its history and up to the present day, Florida has purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, principally through disparate funding, that has prevented HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), including FAMU, from achieving parity with their traditionally White institution (‘TWI’) counterparts,” the lawsuit said.
The state of Florida, the Board of Governors for the state’s university system and Chancellor Marshall Criser are named as defendants in the federal lawsuit, which was filed in the Northern District of Florida.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The owner of a Suwannee County farm is in line to be the state’s newest medical-marijuana operator, beating out 11 other applicants competing for a license earmarked for a Black farmer with ties to Florida.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “At the heart of this complaint is a level playing field for students that go to historically Black colleges and universities. And in the state of Florida, the numbers don’t lie, and the history doesn’t lie. They say the truth and facts are stubborn things, and they are.” – Josh Dubin, a Miami attorney representing Florida A&M University students in a lawsuit accusing the state of discriminating against the school through inadequate funding.